updated 4/22/2005 2:39:54 PM ET 2005-04-22T18:39:54

Guest: Kent Alexander, Sue Bailey, Tom O‘neil, Dan Reed, Savannah Guthrie

ALISON STEWART, HOST:  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

Return of a killer flu, strain H2N2, a deadly flu virus mistakenly shipped around the world.  Pulling out the stops to stop a global outbreak.

Home-grown terrorism.  Eric Rudolph confessed to bombing an abortion clinic in Alabama, flew to Georgia and confessed to the Olympic Park bombing.  So why will the admitted terrorist be spared the death penalty?

The Jackson trial, not a Jackson mistrial, as the defense requested.  In court today, a visibly shaken Michael Jackson as the accuser‘s mother finally takes the stand.

And kindness with a camera, professional photographers lending their expertise to help older kids find adoptive homes.

And a woman who says she found a finger in her chili.  Why her story may amount to a hill of beans.

All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.

And good evening.  I‘m Alison Stewart. in for Keith Olbermann.

It killed millions of people in the 1950s, and tonight there are fears it could kill again.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, a deadly strain of the flu virus accidentally mailed to thousands of labs around the world, most of them right here in the United States.  Health officials are now scrambling to get the samples destroyed.

In a moment, we‘ll get a reality check from Dr. Sue Bailey, the former assistant defense secretary for health affairs.

But first, a look at what went wrong from chief science correspondent Robert Bazell.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (on phone):  Good morning, Meridian Biosciences.

ROBERT BAZELL, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  The virus specimens went from this company to almost 4,000 labs in the U.S. and 18 other countries, and they could have endangered the whole world.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  While the risk of the situation is very low, we‘re not taking any chances, and we are doing everything we can to make sure that there‘s no threat to human health.

BAZELL:  The influenza virus was part of a kit routinely used to test the skills of laboratory workers.  But in kits shipped since 2004, the company, Meridian Biosciences of Cincinnati, included a strain of flu viruses designated by scientists H2N2.  H2N2 crossed from birds or pigs into humans and in 1957, caused what is called a pandemic, killing 1 to 4 million people around the world.

But over the next decade, people built up immunity, either because they were infected, or from flu shots which contained the strain.

(on camera):  But by 1968, the strain was gone.  No one was infected, and it was taken out of the vaccine.  But that is precisely why the strain is so dangerous.  No one in the world born since 1968 has been exposed, so billions have no immunity.

(voice-over):  But the virus did stay in labs.  Scientists need specimens from the past to understand the constantly changing flu virus.  Meridian Biosciences said today it did not do anything improper, because H2N2 was not on the CDC‘s list of hazardous strains, an oversight CDC says it will correct.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  One of the things we must never forget is, a virus today that appears to be benign or at least outdated, not a big problem, tomorrow, given a change in world population, a change in conditions for transmission, could again become a lethal pathogen.

BAZELL:  All indications are the virus has not spread from any lab, but the incident is yet another reminder of the danger the world faces from influenza.

Robert Bazell, NBC News, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  Now, for a bit of a reality check on how this happened and how worried we should be, we are joined now by Dr. Sue Bailey, the former assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.  She is currently an MSNBC analyst.

Dr. Bailey, thanks for taking the time tonight.

DR. SUE BAILEY, FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR HEALTH

AFFAIRS:  Glad to be here, Alison.

STEWART:  OK, the big question everybody has, how does the wrong virus sample get sent out without anybody noticing until a lab in Canada says, You might want this back, eh?  I mean, how could this actually happen?

BAILEY:  Well, no one knows.  Meridian Bioscience says they don‘t know, and the college of—the American College of Pathologists, which sets up those proficiency test kits and asks that that private company put different strains in, they all say—they both say that they don‘t know how this could have happened.  They thought it was a benign strain.  It apparently was a mislabeling problem.  But we‘ve got a problem.

STEWART:  Human error, it almost sounds like.

BAILEY:  It probably was.  But again, because we don‘t know, we really don‘t know how it could have happened.  But we know that it got ,shipped and it‘s a dangerous flu vaccine.

STEWART:  Now, what would it take to spread to the population?  And what could happen if this occurred?

BAILEY:  Well, that‘s the real concern.  You know, in 1957, 1 to 4

million people were killed around the world, 70,000 here in the United

States.  Put in that in perspective, though.  If you look at the flu that -

·         the flu epidemic that we had in 1918, that killed many, many more millions around the world, and many more Americans.

This is not nearly that deadly, but it is about twice as deadly as the flu that we see every year.  So it‘s a real concern, because it can be passed from person to person.

STEWART:  Now, is developing a vaccine an option at this point?

BAILEY:  It‘s really not, because it takes a long time to develop another vaccine for a specific strain.  That‘s what we do every year.  But it takes many, many months, and we really could not do it in time.

By the way, for the avian flu, which has not even been passed from person to person at this time, we now are working on trials so that we will be ready, if we need to be, with a vaccine for that.

STEWART:  You just brought up an interesting point.  Are we ready, if something should happen tomorrow, how equipped are we to deal with a strain of avian flu, or any strange death difficult deadly strain?

BAILEY:  Well, remember that this is a virus, so we can‘t treat it with antibiotics.  So we‘re really thrown back probably centuries in our ability to deal with this illness, which is why so many people die, even here in the United States.

So we—it is one of the things that is of real concern.  Are we ready?  Are we able to deal with it?  We know some of the antivirals, like Tamiflu, are things that would help, but we really don‘t have enough stockpiled.  It turns out in America today that we only have enough for about 1 percent of the population of those antivirals.

So you can see, we may not be ready, and we‘re using old technology to make vaccines.  It takes too long, and we may need to support the companies that don‘t want to make a vaccine that may not be used.

STEWART:  And finally, how really worried should we be about this specific case, about this virus being mailed around the world?

BAILEY:  Well, I don‘t think the average American has to worry at all.  I think, as Americans, we have to be concerned that our government do get ready for any flu that comes along in the future.  We hope nothing has happened, and there‘s no indication at this time that there‘s been an accident, or it‘s gotten outside of a lab.

So we do need to keep this in perspective and know that most of the vials, they‘re hoping, at the World Health Organization, will be destroyed by Friday.

STEWART:  Dr. Sue Bailey, thanks for the reality check.

BAILEY:  You‘re welcome.

STEWART:  In other health news tonight, a surprising decision on a very controversial subject.  The FDA says, yes, yes, ladies, you can go from an A to a B to a C or a double-D.  Silicone breast implants could be back on the market very soon.

A Food and Drug Administration panel has recommended to allow the implants to return with restrictions.  This is after a 13-year ban.  The panel was apparently convinced by the Mentor Corporation‘s claim that its newer silicone implants are safer and more durable.

What makes the decision even more surprising is that just yesterday, the same panel rejected a similar request by a rival company.

Eric Robert Rudolph, he has now admitted he is the Atlantic Olympic bomber and the man behind three other bombings.  How the government nabbed Rudolph, and why the admitted terrorist has escaped the death penalty.

And pop princess Britney Spears is preggers.  I know, we heard about it only yesterday, but it is just sinking in now that someone will be calling Britney Spears Mommy.

This is COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Eric Rudolph spent time in two courtrooms today in two different states, winked at the prosecutors, and plead guilty to four bombings, including the deadly blast at Atlanta‘s Olympic Park in 1996, and an abortion clinic bombing in Birmingham in 1998.

In our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, the bomber turned survivalist who kept the FBI on the hunt for five years survives once more.  He escapes the death penalty.

Our correspondent Pete Williams reports on the legal maneuvering that is the plea deal.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PETE WILLIAMS, MSNBC JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Federal investigators believe that on January 29, 1998, Eric Rudolph stood behind this tree in Birmingham, held a model airplane radio controller, watched officer Robert Sanderson step to a certain spot at a nearby abortion clinic, and then used the remote to set off a powerful hidden bomb.

A few second later, a college student at the University of Alabama in Birmingham noticed that while people were running toward the bombing scene, one man was walking away, who later took off and threw away a wig.  The student got his license number.  That led to this pickup and to a name.  Eric Robert Rudolph, leading the ATF, FBI, and state authorities to carefully build their case.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I think the government‘s case was an overwhelming case, and I think by his actions today, Eric Rudolph indicated that he agrees with that.

WILLIAMS:  Among the strong points, the wig.  A similar one was found in Rudolph‘s trailer.  So were traces of dynamite all over inside, even on the bedsheet.  Metal plates used in Rudolph‘s three Atlanta bombings matched the composition of steel plates made from a single plant and sold by a company in North Carolina, where a friend of Rudolph‘s worked.

(on camera):  Investigators found a particular kind of masonry nail like these in a storage locker that Rudolph rented.  Investigators focused on toolmarks left on the nails by the manufacturer.

(voice-over):  They matched marks on nails made from the same production run that were found in the bombs he planted at an Atlanta abortion clinic.

And gunpowder, a dealer who remembered selling it to Rudolph, the kind used in the Olympic bombing, later said it was Rudolph‘s voice on a 911 call placed just before it went off.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

ERIC RUDOLPH (on phone):  There is a bomb in Centennial Park.  You have 30 minutes.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

WILLIAMS:  And hose clamps.  Agents also discovered that Rudolph bought two like these from this Murphy, North Carolina, Wal-Mart.  Pieces of the identical kind of clamp were found in the body of Officer Sanderson in Birmingham.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  His objective from the beginning was mass murder, and his tools were vicious bombs.

WILLIAMS:  Why did Rudolph do it?  Investigators believe his main target was the government.  April 19, 1993, was the day of the deadly federal siege in Waco, Texas.  That very date, 4-19-93, shows up on the Army of God letters that Rudolph wrote.  U.S. postal inspectors say the stamps used to send the letters went on sale the same day as Waco, indicating Rudolph may have begun his planning then.

A further sign of government hatred, Rudolph hid a fully functioning bomb across the street from the North Carolina building that housed the very bomb investigators looking for him.  Agents found and detonated it late last week.

In a written statement out late today, Rudolph said he bombed the Olympics to, quote, “embarrass the Washington government in the eyes of the world” for sanctioning abortion.

Rudolph will be sentenced in July.  He‘ll serve a life sentence in a prison run by the government he hated.

Pete Williams, NBC News, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  And I‘m joined now by former U.S. attorney Kent Alexander, who worked on all three Atlanta bombing investigations and was in the courtroom this afternoon.

Mr. Alexander, thanks for taking the time tonight.

KENT ALEXANDER, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY:  Happy to be here, Alison.

STEWART:  Like to start with this plea.  Can you please explain why Eric Rudolph was able to make a deal like this in the first place, avoiding the death penalty?

ALEXANDER:  Sure, it really boils down to one word, and that‘s dynamite.  He had stolen a lot of dynamite from the Murphy, North Carolina, area.  And that dynamite he had hidden underground and made—actually made a bomb with his—you mentioned earlier in the news story, with part of it.

So anybody could have stumbled upon that bomb or stumbled upon the dynamite.  And had the government gone for the death penalty, it would have been a hollow victory, if, on appeal at some point two years from now, let‘s say a Boy Scout troop driving a stake in to set up a tent blew up.  And they were really facing that.

So I think for the government, it was an easy tradeoff.  But the government had to prove the case to Rudolph so he knew he‘d be convicted.  And that‘s how—that‘s—I think that‘s how it happened.

STEWART:  Let‘s talk about Eric Rudolph‘s behavior in the courtroom today, since you were there.  It was described by one journalist, one account I read, as prideful.  Another person said haughty.  Rudolph said the government could, quote, these are his words, “just barely prove its case” in the first of a string of bombings that will send him to prison.  Is he right?  First part of that question.  And what does he have to be so cocky about?

ALEXANDER:  Well, the first (UNINTELLIGIBLE), the first plea was in Birmingham.  And it sounds like he maybe was a little haughty and cocky.  The second plea was to the three Atlanta bombings.  I was there, and I was watching the entire time.  I mean, he was certainly determined, he was unfazed.  Maybe you could read that as haughty.  But basically, he was there to do what he had decided to do.

As far as having any reason to be haughty, he has none.  He is going to prison for the rest of his life, maximum security, no appeal.  And if he thinks he‘s got some great gift, he‘s clearly not spent a lot of time in a maximum security prison before.

STEWART:  Now, Rudolph‘s extremist ties help explain the choice of bombing an abortion clinic or a gay nightclub.  But why the Olympics?

ALEXANDER:  Well, best we can tell is from what he wrote today.  And he really does have a vitriolic hatred for the federal government.  And in his view, the federal government, if I can paraphrase his twisted reasoning, supports abortion, supports gay rights, and therefore, particularly in the abortion piece, he wanted to make a statement against the government.  And he thought embarrassing Atlanta, embarrassing the United States during the Olympics, was the way to do it.

And in fact, in his letter, he said he had hoped to actually set off a bomb that destroyed the power grid for all the Olympics to shut the whole thing down.  His plans went awry.

STEWART:  And before I let you go on here, do you think Eric Rudolph poses a danger to anybody in any way, especially given some of his alleged ties to white supremists?

ALEXANDER:  I think Eric Rudolph is a loner.  He‘s a lone Wolf.  If he poses a danger to anybody, it‘s to himself at this point.  And at this point, he‘s getting what he deserves, a lifetime of basically hell in maximum security.

STEWART:  Kent Alexander, former U.S. attorney, current general counsel for Emory University, thanks for being with us tonight.

ALEXANDER:  Thanks, Alison.

STEWART:  Turning now from domestic terrorism past to international terror present, an American contractor is being held hostage in Iraq.  Jeff Aike (ph) was kidnapped by masked gunmen Monday, taken from a reconstruction project site in the Baghdad area.  Aike owns an Indiana-based company that sells water bottling equipment.  This grainy video was first broadcast on Al Jazeera television.  In it, Aike asked the U.S.  administration to open a dialogue with Iraqi resistance and to save his life.

A soccer match in Italy turn molto bruto.  That means “really ugly” in Italian.  Fans with flares, that‘s true.

And the great chili finger mystery.  Wendy‘s still has an reward out for info.  The accuser breaks form with her past behavior and decides not to sue.  And the investigation grows to include a mountain lion.

Stand by.

STEWART:  I‘m Alison Stewart here, while Keith enjoys a little R&R.  I‘m not sure which two R‘s he‘s enjoying, but I hope he‘s having a good time.

It‘s time once again to pause the COUNTDOWN for our nightly segment of weird news, dumb criminals, and cool video.  Let‘s play Oddball.

We begin in Italy, where you‘d think, when they have a riot in the streets before the soccer match, security officials might check the fans entering the stadium for weapons, bottles, I don‘t know, road flares?

Obviously, they didn‘t.  And the European Champions League quarter final had to be halted in the 75th minute, the field littered with debris and on fire.  The goalkeeper for the A.C. Milan team was actually struck with one of the flares, one of them thrown from the stands.  He suffered slight burns and bruising, was taken to the hospital, but will be fine and ready to play in the team‘s next game on Sunday.  You don‘t want to miss that one, because it is free dynamite night.

To Budapest, Hungary, where they‘ve taken child labor laws to all new levels.  This is the children‘s railway, a full-sized train run almost entirely by half-pint kids.  The engineers are adults.  But pretty much everybody else—the conductors, ticket sellers, and switch and signal operators—at all eight stops of the line are children.  This is not punishment.  In fact, only kids with good references and high grades can participate.  Kids with low grades, they get to play cable news host.

And finally, to Germany for the grand opening of the Hamburg Dog Wash.  It‘s a self-serve business.  All you need, a few bucks, and a dog.  You wash, you soak, you rinse, Turtle Wax. roll over, fetch, sit.  So many options.  The owner says he got the idea from something he saw in the United States, and it better not be that episode of “The Apprentice” from last season, pal, or The Donald will be on his way to Hamburg for a piece of the action.

A lot of action in the Michael Jackson trial today, the mother of the accuser booed while walking into court.  She took the Fifth and makes a direct plea to the jury.  We‘ll take you inside the courtroom for a pivotal day.

And big-time photographers are used to chasing after celebrities to get that perfect photo.  But now some are turning their lenses to kids in hopes of helping them find a perfect home.

Those stories ahead.

Now here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmakers of the day.

Number three, North and South Korea.  In the first cooperation between the two countries in decades, zoos from both sides have agreed to an animal exchange to take place tomorrow just north of the demilitarized zone.  The North will be sending 16 animals, including two Siberian weasels and eight black bears.  The South is giving up 10 beasts, including a bunch of hippopotamuses.  We‘ll let you know if war breaks out again.

Number two, Twinkies.  The Hostess Company has announced they are celebrating the 75th anniversary of the sweet, golden, cream-filled snack cake lusciousness.  The first Twinkies hit the shelves in 1930 and were originally stuffed with banana instead of vanilla cream.  And we‘re pretty sure some of those banana ones are still available in the vending machine here.

And number one, Christina Tomicelli (ph), a 49-year-old Florida woman arrested for driving under the influence and refusing to take a blood alcohol test.  She was reportedly weaving all over the road, flying through stoplights, driving into oncoming traffic.  The witnesses were the ones who called the police, five teenage couples in the back seat.  They were headed to the prom.  They rented a limo to be safe.  Tomicelli was their chauffeur.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Keith Olbermann is off tonight.  I‘m Alison Stewart.  From the otherwise sunny climes of Santa Maria, California, tonight, more murkiness emerging from the underbelly of jurisprudence.  Our No. 3 story on the COUNTDOWN, tonight: head licking, death threats, bribery and the 5th Amendment.  It could all only come from one place.  Welcome to day 513 of the Michael Jackson investigations.

The mother of the accuser, arguably the most controversial witness, was the star of the day, one which began with her invoking her 5th Amendment rights against self-incrimination.  District Attorney Tom Sneddon told the jury during opening statements she would testify to accepting Welfare payments to which she was not entitled.  But as far as she‘s concerned, that‘s not coming from her.

What they did here in between several tearful outbursts was this.  During a flight from Miami to California, she witnessed Michael Jackson allegedly licking her weeping (ph) son‘s head.  The pop star told her that her life and the lives of her children were in danger.  In order to, quote,”appease the killers,” they needed to return to the Neverland ranch to participate in a pro-Jackson video.  She also claims she was offered hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, vacations and cars if she‘d agree to interviews that would be flattering to the entertainer.

Court TV correspondent and attorney Savannah Guthrie was inside the courtroom today, as she has been throughout the course of the trial.  Savannah, it‘s been conventional wisdom that the accuser‘s mother as a witness was going to be problematic.  How would you describe her performance on the stand today?

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE, COURT TV:  I don‘t even know if I have the words, Alison.  She was extremely dramatic, over the top, crying at one point, addressing the media directly at one point, addressing Michael Jackson repeatedly, referring to him as “you,” as in, I was still trying to help you back then.  She was very compelling to watch, hard to tear your eyes away.  Not sure what the jury thinks of her, at this point.

STEWART:  You mentioned she‘s completely off the rails, at this point.  She immediately pled the 5th regarding the fraud allegations, and later in front of jury, she actually addressed them directly, right?

GUTHRIE:  Yes.  A lot of her answers, she would look directly at the jury, trying to engage the jury, which, you know, some witnesses do, and it‘s actually pretty effective for them to do that.  But I thought, by far, the most shocking part of her testimony was when she would address Michael Jackson directly, saying, You know, on the way back from Neverland, I called So-and-So on your phone, and I was still trying to help you back in the day.  And you know, Your people were in damage control mode.

Repeatedly, the prosecutor had to tell her, Don‘t address anybody else in the courtroom, just listen to my questions and answer the questions, because she would just go off on tangents.  Yes, it was just a very, very interesting courtroom drama unfolding.

STEWART:  So how did Michael Jackson react to being addressed directly by this woman?

GUTHRIE:  You know, he just seemed to stare straight ahead.  It‘s hard to see in that courtroom what exactly he‘s looking at.  I think he sort of fixes his eyes on a point in the wall, and who know what he‘s thinking about, whether it be the testimony or something more pleasant.  But she looked directly at him.  He was looking in her general direction.  I don‘t know if they got into any kind of staring contest.

STEWART:  Now, which do you think was more effective—just from your point of view—her demeanor—would that sink in with the jury more—we talked about her behavior being kind of wacky—or the content of what she had to say?  Was that compelling enough to sway the jury?

GUTHRIE:  Well, it‘s really interesting because, as you say, she does come off as a little bit wacky.  And she cried a lot and she told the jurors, Please don‘t judge me, please don‘t judge me.  Sometimes she seems a little crazy.  On the other hand, she‘s claiming that Jackson and his aides were telling her there were death threats against her and her family.  And guess what?  Prosecutors played a tape of several conversations she had with a Jackson aide, Frank Tyson, where he does exactly that, tells her she‘s in danger, she needs to come back to the ranch, implores her to participate in this rebuttal video.

And so who‘s crazy at the end of the day?  She‘s telling this story, but it seem to be true, at least in some respects.

STEWART:  OK.  The defense has not had the opportunity to cross-examine just yet.  What will their focus be, do you think, after today?

GUTHRIE:  Well, it‘s so interesting to see Tom Mesereau, who usually is the first to object whenever he has the option to.  He was dead silent today.  I don‘t think I‘ve ever seen him object less.  It seemed to me he made a strategic decision to let this woman hang herself, give her enough rope, let her talk, let the jury see what she‘s all about.

When it comes time to cross-examine her, I think he‘ll focus on the inconsistencies in the story she‘s told to police, to the grand jury, and now on the stand.  And he‘ll focus on the absurdity of her story, that she was falsely imprisoned at Neverland, yet she‘s out in public places racking up the bills on Michael Jackson‘s credit card, getting a full body wax, and never crying out for help, never calling police.  I think that‘s where Mesereau‘s going.

STEWART:  And we shall see.  Savannah Guthrie, thanks again, from Court TV.  We appreciate it.

GUTHRIE:  Sure.

STEWART:  Moving from the strange to the even stranger to the just really gross, the continuing saga of the human finger found in a bowl of Wendy‘s chili.  In case you have quite understandably blocked this from your memory, allow us to remind about this story.  Last month, Anna Ayala from Las Vegas, Nevada, visited a Wendy‘s restaurant in San Jose, California, and she got the finger, literally.  She ordered a bowl of chili and started to chow down when she bit into something she described as, quote, “kind of hard, crunchy.”  It was the tip of a human finger, about an inch-and-a-half long.

Ayala filed a claim against the restaurant, the police launched an inquiry, and Wendy‘s put up a $50,000 reward to find anything about the finger and its original owner.

Suspicions began to surround Ayala, and the San Jose investigators searched her home, just as court records were found showing that she has a history of filing claims against corporations.

Now, Anna Ayala has dropped her claim against Wendy‘s.  Her lawyer tells COUNTDOWN that since the incident, she‘s been emotionally distraught, she‘s had to take medication, and with all the news crews surrounding her house, she decided that legal action was not worth it.

As for the finger, police still haven‘t found out where the digit came from.  But “The San Jose Mercury News” reports today that police are investigating a new lead involving, OK, a spotted leopard, which bit off a fingertip back in February.  And the severed digit bears a striking resemblance in photos to this picture of the Wendy‘s finger.

OK, we‘re all up to speed.  Joining to us explain these latest developments, Dan Reed of “The San Jose Mercury News.”  Dan, thanks so much for joining us.

DAN REED, “SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS”:  Sure.

STEWART:  All right, explain this sort of bizarre new lead involving the spotted leopard.  Where is the animal from, and how does it weave into the story, exactly?

REED:  Well, this woman had a bunch of exotic animals in Pahrump, Nevada, which is about 45 miles from Las Vegas.  And an animal rescue group wanted to rescue them, which is why they‘re called an animal rescue group.  So they went up there, and the woman who had these exotic animals said—you know, was handing them over and said, My babies would never hurt me.  And then this leopard comes up—bam! -- bites, like, an inch-and-a half off her finger.

So you know, it falls down.  They pick it up.  They go to a clinic.  The clinic can‘t reattach it.  So they give it—for whatever reason, I guess they don‘t have a surgeon there.  They give it to her packed in ice, and who knows what happens to it then?

Then the Wendy‘s story goes out.  The woman who was with the animal rescue sees a picture of the Wendy‘s finger and says—you know, it‘s a woman‘s finger, nicely manicured.  And she thought it looked like the finger, you know, the leopard chomped on.  She called the San Jose cops, and the San Jose cops are looking to see if there‘s any connection.

STEWART:  You couldn‘t make that up.  You just couldn‘t make that up.

REED:  You can‘t make up Michael Jackson face licking, either.

STEWART:  Head licking.  Let‘s be exact.

REED:  Head licking.  Sorry.

STEWART:  All right, you‘ve been with the story since the beginning.

REED:  Right.

STEWART:  And I understand you were actually the first reporter to speak to Ms. Ayala...

REED:  Right.

STEWART:  ... after she found the finger.  Are you surprised she‘s dropping the claim, based on your encounter with her?

REED:  She was really animated when I first talked to her.  And I suggested to her kind of nicely, Well, you know, some people might say this is a scam.  And she said, No, sick, sick, sick!  That‘s disgusting!  This is a human being!  She was borderline hysterical.  But then again, she‘s had—you know, we media jackals have been hassling her relentlessly, especially since the search.  And you know, maybe she just wants peace of mind.  On the other hand, maybe, you know, she‘s a perpetrator and not a victim, and she just wants to, you know, sever her ties to the case.

STEWART:  That word “sever” came up again.

REED:  Sorry about that.

STEWART:  No problem.  Wendy‘s of San Jose—that‘s where the finger showed up.

REED:  Right.

STEWART:  They actually sent us a statement today.  I want to read it to you.

REED:  OK.

STEWART:  Part of it says, “We‘ve been in San Jose for 29 years, and we‘ve lost some customers over this.”

REED:  Right.

STEWART:  “We haven‘t laid off any employees, but we‘ve had to cut back some hours.  This is hurting our employees, and we‘ve lost some business as a result of this incident, and we‘d love to welcome our customers back.”

Do you think Wendy‘s has a case, if this turn out to be a scam?

REED:  Well, of course.  I do not—I doubt they would sue Ayala.  I mean, what are they going to get?  What they really want is to restore their reputation.   But I know, you know, they‘ve taken a hit, and it‘s—there‘s been reduced sales throughout the Bay Area, where the media attention is most intense.

STEWART:  All right, back to the hunt for the finger owner.  What is next in the investigation?

REED:  Well, the cops, I talked to them today.  They‘re conducting DNA tests on the finger itself.  And that can determine whether it was—you know, the race, the sex.  They‘re also trying to figure out if there‘s a test that can determine whether the fingertip was cooked with a batch of chili or if it was slipped in afterward.  And apparently, that‘s a kind of delicate test.

STEWART:  I can only imagine.  Dan Reed of “The San Jose Mercury News,” thank you so much for sharing your reporting with us here on COUNTDOWN.

REED:  My pleasure.

STEWART:  Coming up, a new way to save kids from the abyss of the child welfare system, some of the world‘s best photographers helping kids find adoptive homes.  And billions watched the farewell to Pope John Paul II.  Guess whose cameras with were allegedly there to capture the funeral for the big screen?  Those stories ahead.

Now here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three sound bites of the day.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CONAN O‘BRIEN, “LATE SHOW”:  The College Of cardinals is going to meet soon to pick the next pope.  One of the frontrunners is a cardinal from Cuba.  I think it‘s cool.  Yes.  Yes.  Insiders say that if he‘s elected, the pope-mobile will be a 1958 Buick.

UNIDENTIFIED MICHAEL JACKSON SUPPORTERS:  Let‘s go Mesereau!  Let‘s go Mesereau!  Let‘s go Mesereau!

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Mesereau, come back!  You got some more boxes out here!

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Michael!

GEORGE WALKER BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I appreciate Larry Izzo.  He went to Rice, as I understand.  That right?  Yes.  Rice University in Houston, Texas.

Is it Izzo or Izo?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Izzo.

BUSH:  Yes.  Well, if you‘re from Texas, you say Izo, and if you‘re from...

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Sounds good to me.

BUSH:  If you‘re from Massachusetts, it‘s Izzo.  At least I got Rice right.

(LAUGHTER)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Hold onto your heartstrings, everybody, because we‘re about to give them a big tug.  Our No. 2 story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, a fantastic photo shoot that‘s not about promoting a movie or the latest CD dropping.  It‘s about promoting kids who need homes.  COUNTDOWN‘s Monica Novotny joins me now with a story that can make the grinchiest heart grow three sizes in one day.  Monica, tell me about this.

MONICA NOVOTNY, COUNTDOWN:  That‘s right, Alison.  You know, the numbers are hard to hear.  Nearly 130,000 children in the U.S. public welfare system are waiting to be adopted.  Most are 8 years old or even older.  Now, though, there is a new strategy to get them homes.  With the help of some very talented photographers, these kids are getting a chance to show off their true colors.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NAJLAH FEANNY HICKS, PHOTOGRAPHER:  I have been recording history for 20 years as a photojournalist.  This is something right here in my backyard.  I can actually help to determine the history, the future of a child, and that‘s a really powerful incentive.

NOVOTNY (voice-over):  Changing the lives of children up for adoption one child, one photograph at a time, photographer Najlah Feanny Hicks working with more than 150 colleagues, all volunteers, to capture the essence of the more than 300 New Jersey children currently up for adoption, all for a portrait exhibit called a Heart Gallery.  The hope, that adults who see it in person or on line will make a connection and adopt.

JAMAL:  I hope I can have—find a nice family and be with them for the rest of my life.

NOVOTNY:  Twelve-year-old Jamal needs a home.  So do Isaiah, Bill, Curtis and Ashley, all ready for these photographs to help them find a family.  These older children among the hardest to place, many passed from home to home, enduring neglect, violence, indifference.

KELLY MEDINA, NEW JERSEY CASEWORKER:  Most of the families want the smaller children, but I think it‘s important to know that the older children have a lot to offer, also.

NOVOTNY:  In 10-year-old Ashley‘s case, an abusive environment pushed her into the system.  Shy to start...

(on camera):  So is it fun to be in the spotlight for a minute?

ASHLEY:  Yes.

NOVOTNY (voice-over):  But with a little TLC, she slowly comes to life.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Do you think I can borrow those boots?

JEFFREY SALTER, PHOTOGRAPHER:  We, as photographers, have been given a gift, you know?  We travel around the world, documenting kings, queens, celebrities.  But here‘s a chance for us to give a gift back.

NOVOTNY:  Jeffrey Salter typically shoots for “Sports Illustrated” and “Us Weekly,” but today, it‘s all about Ashley.

SALTER:  She smiles on the inside and the outside.  And I just hope that I can do her justice.

NOVOTNY:  With help from the pros, the personalities pop.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I describe myself as a good-looking guy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I think I was a movie star that has lots of money.

NOVOTNY (on camera):  Here in New Jersey, photographers are taking their cue from the first Heart Gallery, which took part in New Mexico back in 2001.  Since then, organizers say, more than 10 have been the held throughout the country, resulting in the adoption of well over 100 children.

HICKS:  I just see the desperate need of these children just to want to call somebody Mom and Dad.

NOVOTNY:  These pictures telling their stories and perhaps refocusing their future.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  People out in the world now want a kid to adopt, or—like, a son.  Maybe they can‘t have a son, but they need a son to help them or something.  That‘s why I think it was nice for me to take a picture and they can put me in the news, put me on a paper and show me off.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  And you‘re a great son.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yes, I am.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NOVOTNY:  This Heart Gallery exhibit is scheduled to open on June 12 in New Jersey, but the children are available for adoption out of state.  The gallery has a Web site, which has already generated four million hits in just over three weeks, but they‘d love a few more.  So if you‘d like more information on these children, you‘ll find it on our Web site.  That‘s at countdown@msnbc.com.

STEWART:  Fantastic story.  And you can just tell the photographers were so affected by these kids.  Just even looking at the pictures, you get affected by them.

NOVOTNY:  Definitely.  One of the things that they all seemed to say when we talked to them was, after the fact, that, you know, this is as important, if not more important, than any of the work that they ever do.  And these are people who are going around the world.  They‘re not only shooting celebrities, they‘re documenting wars.  So they do very important stuff.  But they really felt a connection with these kids.  And in fact, I‘m told that three photographers—not at this shoot, but three photographers at past Heart Galleries have adopted children.

STEWART:  I can understand why.  Monica Novotny, fantastic story.

NOVOTNY:  Thank you.

STEWART:  Thanks so much.

(UNINTELLIGIBLE) to the stories of celebrity, tales and gossip in a segment we like to call “Keeping Tabs.”  And barely 10 days after his death, there‘s already talk of a Hollywood epic film on the life of Pope John Paul II from the same guy who produced, directed and financed the immensely popular and immensely violent “The Passion of the Christ,” “The New York Post” newspaper reporting that Mel Gibson has already filmed the ending of his papal movie and also that he allegedly sent a team to Rome last Friday to shoot the funeral.  Gibson‘s production office is refusing to confirm the film‘s existence or that its working title is “The Passion of the Pope.”  OK, we made that last line up.

And to the theory that once you‘re in a reality show, that you just can‘t get arrested, it is hooey.  Just ask Chris Shelton, the hothead former “Apprentice” player.  He was arrested for disorderly conduct and spent the early hours of Sunday morning in a Tampa, Florida, jail.  Shelton had thrown a fit because he didn‘t want to pay a $20 cover charge at a casino bar, and according to the police report obtained by Thesmokinggun.com—great place to go—was, quote, “at the lobby causing a scene, several patrons in the area visibly shaken by his actions.”

You know who saw it coming?  The Donald, who described Shelton as, quote, “a mess and a train wreck.”  Now Mr. Trump says he‘ll there be for the errant reality TV type, if he needs him, adding that Chris is a good guy with an anger management problem.  Shelton is technically still in the final contenders in the third season, but filming is already over for the year, so whatever Shelton did or didn‘t do, it won‘t affect whether or not he hears the orange-haired one say, “You‘re fired.”

And to the top of the COUNTDOWN.  Kevin and Britney sitting in a tree.  And now baby makes three.  A little spin-off on the way, courtesy of Mr.  and Mrs. Federline.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  The worst kept secret possibly in the history of tabloid journalism is a secret no more tonight.  Anyone who has browsed the pages of “The Enquirer” or “People” magazine or “In Touch Weekly” while waiting in line at the supermarket knows exactly what I‘m talking about.  Our No. 1 story on the COUNTDOWN, those extra inches on Mrs. Federline‘s midsection, and that really disturbing graphic behind me.  More than just a couple extra bags of Cheetos—I mean, come on, ladies.  You were enjoying, like me, a little celebrity Schadenfreude, hoping that Britney was just getting fat.  Not true.  Top 40 megastar Britney Spears is pregnant, her husband, Kevin Federline, going for some kind of fatherhood record, baby No. 3 in under three years.

The news of this less than immaculate conception is barely 24 hours old tonight, hardly enough time to digest its magnitude.  Britney‘s life, and quite possibly ours, will never be the same again.  Here to help you us come to grips with the impending motherhood of Britney Spears, Tom O‘Neil, senior editor of “In Touch Weekly.”

Tom, good to see you.

TOM O‘NEIL, “IN TOUCH WEEKLY” MAGAZINE:  Good to be here, Alison.

STEWART:  So tell us why this is such a big story.  Explain for people who are confused by this why such a not so secret story has become headline news.

O‘NEIL:  Because Britney isn‘t just any star.  She broke out in 1999 almost as the embodiment of the young woman of America.  Remember, she was the first star ever to be No. 1 in the singles and album charts.  She was shaking her booty down the hallways of the high school, singing, “Baby Hit Me One More Time,”  and she was—she was this innocent rebel.

But here‘s where the twist happens, Alison.  She‘s gone from innocent rebel to dumb tramp.  I mean, she transformed herself into a tramp.  And she‘s not even a smart tramp, like Madonna, she‘s a dumb one.

STEWART:  And she was also a Mouseketeer, if I remember correctly, right?

O‘NEIL:  She was a Mouseketeer.  And everything about her lately has been ridiculous.  Her movies, like “Crossroads,” her marriage last year, that 55-hour marriage in Vegas in the middle of the night to Jason Alexander, her old childhood buddy, who she decided, after watching “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” at 3:00 AM, Gee, honey, let‘s get married.

STEWART:  All right.  Can you fill us in on some other behavior in, say, the past year that might not suggest the maturity necessary for motherhood?  You mentioned the 55-hour marriage.

O‘NEIL:  Yes.  A lot of drinking scenes on the beach, a lot of just immature behavior in general.  And then marrying Kevin Federline.

STEWART:  Yes, let‘s talk about this guy.  He‘s not really a prize.

O‘NEIL:  No.  He‘s a former pizza delivery guy, a former backup dancer.  Really!

STEWART:  Nothing wrong with pizza delivery people.  We just want to say that.  It just happens to be this guy.

O‘NEIL:  It just happens to be this guy.  I delivered some pizzas in my day.  The problem with this pizza delivery guy is he was hitting on Britney when his girlfriend was pregnant with their second child.  This is Shar Jackson.  And then, when Britney was pregnant in her third month last month, he was out in Vegas, hitting on some floozy, according to some press accounts, and got caught by Britney.  So this guy just seems like the ultimate definition of white trash.

STEWART:  All right.  So Britney‘s known for her sex appeal now.  She‘s gone from girl next door to this sexy, hotsy-totsy singer.  How do you think motherhood is going to affect her career?

O‘NEIL:  That‘s a very, very good question because she hasn‘t had an album out in two years.  She is pretty much at the end of her five-year marketing cycle, as music people gauge these things.  She has to redefine herself.  She will emerge from this child—she was going to take some time off any way.  So now, when she comes back, the question is, is her audience going to be there anymore?  They may not.

STEWART:  Now, from the press standpoint, will this be your bread and butter for the next five or six months?

(LAUGHTER)

O‘NEIL:  Britney is turning out to be bread, butter, jelly and baloney!  She‘s everything on the sandwich.  She‘s fantastic!

STEWART:  This is going to be documented step by step, every visit, every time she buys maternity clothes, right?

O‘NEIL:  Absolutely because she is still, despite her now ridiculous nature, the embodiment of her generation, and we hope she can redeem herself.

STEWART:  Well, Tom O‘Neil, I know you got a lot of work ahead of you.  We appreciate you taking the time.  “In Touch Weekly,” Tom O‘Neil, senior editor, thanks a bunch.

O‘NEIL:  Thanks, Alison.

STEWART:  And that is COUNTDOWN.  Thank you very much for watching.  I‘m Alison Stewart, in for the vacationing Keith Olbermann.  Good night, good luck, and I do hope I see you tomorrow.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

Content and programming copyright 2005 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2005 Voxant, Inc. ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

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